by: John Caddell

In the prior post in this series, I talked about galvanizing the will to change through "bringing the outside in"--learning what customers, the press, influencers--really anyone--thinks about the company, its products, its marketplace, industry, etc.

To which a reasonable person might ask: "Isn't that my marketing department's job?" Especially with newer tools like blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc., marketing is taking the lead in engaging with the "groundswell."

While marketing has a significant role to play, they cannot own this function, any more than finance can own any decision that has to do with dollars and cents--it's too big, too comprehensive and too important to be limited to one group. Here are several reasons why:

Marketing is obsessed with brands & messages. Brands and messages are relentlessly positive--who buys a negative message? But learning comes from both positive and negative stories. There are threats as well as opportunities. Marketing is asked to convey messages, not to understand the world in all its messiness and complexity.

PR is asked to get positive stories out there, and to counter negative perceptions--not to learn or to inform the company. True dialogue involves listening--even when the conversation is negative or you don't agree with it--and trying to find lessons in that. Perception is reality, and PR tries to change perception--what we're talking about here is, by contrast, understanding reality.

The view of both is too limited. Different parts of the organization have different things to learn from the outside. Operations needs to learn new ways of working. Product management needs to understand how customers actually use products. HR needs to know how the workforce is evolving. Groupthink is also less likely when a diverse group of people is examining the world--with more likelihood that sound actions, and commitment to achieve them, will result.

Comcast's experiment with Twitter-based customer service (see example here of "Groundswell" co-author Charlene Li Tweeting for help and Comcast responding) works because the Comcast guy is trying to solve a customer problem, not deliver a message. If Charlene ends up feeling better about Comcast, it is a side effect, not the intent, of the action. The tech is also in a position to learn deeply about this customer situation and, I'm certain, to disseminate the learning to colleagues.

Imagine this fictional Twitter dialogue if Charlene had to engage with marketing instead of with a real tech (I've reversed it for readability. In real Twitter, the newest message is on top):

charleneli: @comcastmktg My connection keeps going in and out, happens every few months. Comcast Cust service has no idea why. Any way to escalate?

comcastmktg: @charleneli That's hard to believe. Comcast has the highest network reliability in the industry.

charleneli: @comcastmktg Yeah, fine. Can you help me with my question?

comcastmktg @charleneli Of course. One more thing. Did you know we have twice as many HD channels as DirecTV?

charleneli: @comcastmktg What? Who are you? Can you get me to someone who can help me?

comcastmktg @charleneli Right away. Please email and you'll get a response within 24-48 hours. Have you heard about our community service initiatives?

charleneli: @comcastmktg Aaargh!

Coming next: what is the role of consultants (written by an actual consultant!) in bringing the outside in?

Prior posts in this series:
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Reading list:
Gary Hamel, "The Future of Management"
John Kotter, "A Sense of Urgency"
Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff, "Groundswell"

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